Summary of Imagery and Symbols of Light and Dark in Romeo and Juliet
Light and Dark
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the images of light and dark are one of the most constant visual motifs throughout the play. Characters, such as Benvolio, Juliet, and Romeo, who exhibit goodness, innocence, and love are often seen either giving off light, discussing light, or are in the presence of light. Characters who exhibit violence, evil, and death are often associated with darkness. Light is presented as a conqueror of darkness as well as emblematic of purity and hope. The main characters, Romeo and Juliet, who experience the light think that this light will never fade. It is clear, however, that by the end of the play darkness has consumed any remaining light for these tragic lovers, Romeo and Juliet. In this essay, I will show how light is presented at some of the highest points in the play, and how darkness is shown at some of the lowest parts.
Romeo and Rosaline
The very first mention of Romeo in the play is almost instantly followed by associations with light and with darkness. After Montague’s wife asks Benvolio whether or not he has seen Romeo, he responds with, “…an hour before the worshiped sun / Peered forth the golden window of the east,…so early walking did I see your son” (I.1.117-22). After this Montague complains that Romeo has been avoiding light and is very depressed. Montague, while explaining to Benvolio what Romeo has been up to, says:
Away from light steals home my heavy son
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,
And makes himself an artificial night (I.1.136-39).
These two images of dark and light are contrasting. The light is seen as a healthy and good thing, while the darkness is seen as representing and deepening Romeo’s depression. This imagery of darkness is associated with Romeo’s depression, which is caused by Rosaline. Rosaline does not reciprocate Romeo’s love. Rosaline is also associated with darkness. Not because she is depressed, like Romeo, but because she is not the true love for Romeo. She is also associated with darkness because she is a brunette. As Benvolio says, “Compare her face with some that I shall show, / And I will make thee think thy swan a crow” (I.2.88-89). Benvolio wants to prove to Romeo that Rosaline isn’t the light that he is looking for.
Juliet and the Light
Juliet is almost always associated with light. Almost immediately before Romeo meets Juliet, there is a foreshadowing by Romeo of his meeting with Juliet. “Give me a torch. I am not for this ambling. / Being but heavy, I will bear the light” (I.4.11-12). Not only is this a pun on the word light, but it is also a foreshadowing of Romeo’s bearing the light that is Juliet’s love. It is also ironic because Romeo cannot bear the light of Juliet’s love. When Romeo first sees Juliet he instantly compares her to light.
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich Jewel in an Ethiop’s ear –
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows (I.5.45-50).
This light imagery shows what Romeo truly thinks of Juliet and of Rosaline. Earlier, Benvolio said he would make Rosaline seem as if she were a crow. Now Romeo does think every other woman except for Juliet as dark as crows, and Juliet is the only white dove among these black crows. In fact, Juliet is so bright that she teaches torches how to burn and is as bright as a jewel in an Ethiopian’s ear. Among this light imagery is a foreshadowing of things to come. When Romeo says, “Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!”(I.5.48) he foreshadows sleeping in the tomb immediately after he kills Paris.
A grave? O, no, a lantern, slaughtered youth,
For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence full of light (V.3.84-86)
Juliet is so bright, that even after death she can make a tomb appear as a lantern to Romeo. Juliet was Romeo’s true love, which shows when he describes the light she emanates even after death. Before her death, Juliet even compares the love between them as “Lightening”(II.2.121). This light image is mostly to emphasize how quickly they are falling in love, and how foolish that can be. But, this image could also be seen as their love is like a bright light flashing across a dark night sky. It is a true and quickly-ending love among feuding families.
Darkness is a perpetual presence in the final scenes of the play. When Paris is traveling to Juliet’s grave, he has a torch indicating that it is night (V.3.1). This is one of the darkest scenes in the play, both figuratively and literally. Finally, after Romeo and Juliet’s death, Prince Escalus gives a final speech saying, “A glooming peace this morning with it brings; / The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head” (V.3.305-06). This is the final speech in the play and a summary of Escalus’s feelings about Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths. The darkness that is death has taken all from both Romeo and Juliet.
Throughout the play, light and dark are almost as large of a presence as some of the characters. Light is seen when there is love, hope, and joy; darkness is present when hatred and death are afoot. All of these light and dark images foreshadow what is going to happen by the end of the play. Just as night swallows the day, so does darkness swallow the lives of Romeo and Juliet.